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Why Berkeley Needs a New Police Review Commission—And Why it’ll Have to Wait Two Years to Get One

Andrew Beale
Thursday August 04, 2016 - 11:33:00 AM

On Thursday, July 21, the City of Berkeley’s Administration building was mysteriously under lockdown. Police officers on bicycles and plainclothes security officers ringed the building, refusing entry to Berkeley citizens. A city spokesman posted outside the building (which houses the mayor’s office, the City Council chambers and various other critical city functions) offered no clues, saying only “We’re having some security concerns, but we’re not discussing it broadly.”

Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the source of the “security concerns” became clear: a small group of protesters was trying to enter the building to speak with City Council members about the council’s failure to reform Berkeley’s Police Review Commission. The activist group included students, an attorney and 2016 City Council candidate Nanci Armstrong-Temple. Despite an invitation from current Councilmember Kriss Worthington to meet with him, even Armstrong-Temple was prevented from entering the building. Hours later, Worthington eventually secured permission for the activists to come inside, but by then they had left, tired of standing on the steps of a city office building in intemperate chilly weather. (Armstrong-Temple and several other protesters penned op-eds for the Daily Planet about the experience.)

Worthington told the Daily Planet that he doesn’t know who made the decision to close the building. “You know, I’ve never seen that before, so I was surprised. I just didn’t know what to think,” he said. “I think the community’s concern was very legitimate and reasonable to be upset when people refuse to do their jobs, when elected officials refuse to do their jobs.” 

Failure to Reform 

Worthington was referring to the City Council’s failure to even discuss his proposed changes to the city’s Police Review Commission, the civilian body responsible for investigating complaints against Berkeley police. The PRC was first established in 1973 and has operated under the same rules since then, and many in the community (including some on the commission itself) believe it’s time for an update. 

At the council’s July 19 meeting, Worthington’s proposal for police commission reform, modeled after a similar measure which was passed by the Oakland City Council, was on the agenda, but wasn’t actually discussed at the meeting. Worthington said the problem was an overstuffed agenda for the meeting, including a controversial land-use issue discussed the same night. 

“The Mayor should have understood that a major land-use appeal is going to take a long time,” he said. “When there’s 50 or 100 people showing up at a meeting to speak, you know it’s going to take hours.” 

Since the reform was pushed from the agenda, and since the City Council won’t meet again until September, this means any reforms to the Police Review Commission will have to wait a minimum of two years, until the 2018 election. It’s now too late to get PRC reform on the November 2016 ballot. 

The reforms pushed by Worthington would give the PRC greater oversight of BPD, something he says is badly needed in Berkeley. 

“The Police Review Commission is… sort of advisory to the police chief and advisory to the city manager. They don’t have actual power, just advice, their advice,” Worthington said. “There’s no requirement that their advice be listened to or followed… Many civil-rights and civil-liberties lawyers tell people not even to bother to file a complaint with the Police Review Commission because it doesn’t work.” 

Toothless Oversight 

Bulmaro Vicente, a Cal student and former member of Berkeley’s PRC, echoed Worthington’s criticisms of the commission. 

“One of the main problems that we had was I felt like the commission acts more as an advisory board to the police department than one that enforces discipline,” he said. “There’s no teeth to the commission.” 

Vicente said as a police commissioner he had no power to sanction police misconduct—even when that misconduct was directed at him personally. 

“I found out that the Berkeley Police Association [the police union] was snooping over my social media accounts and sharing information that was posted online [with the Berkeley] police department,” he said. 

During a ride-along with BPD, Vicente witnessed behavior that he described as “very problematic,” including racist comments by Berkeley officers and one officer talking about his desire to arrest a homeless man who was breaking no laws. After expressing his displeasure with the officers’ actions, he received a troubling email from one of the officers. 

“He [the officer] criticized a post I made on Facebook and Instagram,” Vicente said. “And I was concerned that he was looking over my social media and he dug pretty deep, because that post I made was like a year before I was on the commission.” 

Vicente spoke with the chief of police, Michael K. Meehan, about the incident, and the chief’s response was not encouraging. 

“The chief told me that the union [the BPA] was actually the one who was seeing these posts and sharing what I was posting to the police department,” Vicente said. “The chief even told me ‘I’m sorry you had this experience,’ and I told him ‘well, you know, thank you for that, but what I really want is an apology from the officer.’ They had made me very uncomfortable. And then the chief told me ‘I can’t force him to make an apology. I’ll ask him and see how he feels.’” 

Vicente never got his apology, and there was no further action he could take as a PRC member to discipline the officer who sent him the email, which he feels was intended to intimidate him. 

A better model? 

George Perezvelez, the current chair of the Berkeley PRC, said the commission has never had the power to force the chief to discipline officers. 

Perezvelez also sits on the BART Police Citizen Review Board, and he said there’s a major contrast between the powers granted to the BART commission and those granted to Berkeley’s PRC. 

“In Berkeley, I just make findings. I find whether an allegation is sustained or if it’s not, exonerated. And that’s it,” he said. “And it’s up to the chief to make a decision on discipline. At BART, not only can I find whether the allegation is unfounded, founded or exonerated, but I also am able to make recommendations on discipline.” 

In the Berkeley system, Perezvelez said, the PRC commissioners don’t even have the opportunity to find out what discipline (if any) was imposed on an officer after they determine a civilian complaint is “founded.” 

“At BART… there’s a monthly report made by the office of the independent auditor and it tells you in the month of July, there were 100 complaints, 80 complaints are under investigation, 20 of them were resolved, these are the allegations, this is the end result of the allegations,” he said. “I don’t get that in Berkeley. Under Berkeley regulations and rules, I don’t even have the ability to get a report that tells me that.” 

Worthington’s recommendations to the City Council about how best to reform the PRC were modeled after a measure that recently passed by the Oakland City Council. Oakland’s proposed reforms will be on the November ballot for approval by the city’s voters. 

“What I was hoping to do was to have something very similar so that both cities would be voting on something very, very similar at the same time,” he said. 

The proposed reforms to Oakland’s police commission, however, have come under fire from activists for putting too much power in the hands of the mayor. At a contentious meeting of the Oakland City Council on July 26, dozens of community members spoke out against the reforms as currently proposed. By allowing Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to appoint three members of the commission, activists say, the reforms would further concentrate power in the hands of a mayor they feel has done an inadequate job of overseeing the police department. Under Schaaf’s watch, the Oakland Police Department became embroiled in a sex-trafficking scandal. Dozens of Oakland officers, along with several San Francisco officers and at least one federal agent, stand accused of participating in trafficking a teenage woman. None have so far faced criminal charges. 

Maybe Next Time 

Perezvelez said the Berkeley PRC is open to the idea of reform, but commissioners feel there needs to be consultation with community members and the department before any reforms are ready for the ballot. He said the PRC was notified of Worthington’s proposal the day before it was set to be discussed. 

“We didn’t know that a member of city council was going to propose changes to the ordinance,” he said. “All we had were 45 minutes. That’s not enough time. So the commissioners put together the best that they could do and made recommendations to the ordinance.” 

Worthington disputes this version of events, saying that PRC members themselves told him they wanted to see changes to the commission. Both Worthington and Perezvelez agree, however, that reform is still on the table and could make it onto the 2018 ballot. The proposed changes, Worthington said, can’t be passed by the city council alone and must be voted on by Berkeley citizens as a charter amendment. 

“Because it’ll be a two-year process, we will have a lot more chance to hear from the public as well as all the commissioners,” he said. “Now that the city council has killed it for this year, we will certainly work harder to include all of [the commissioners] and all of their ideas.” 

Perezvelez said at the next PRC meeting, in September, he plans to propose the creation of a new subcommittee to gather ideas for reform of the commission. The creation of the subcommittee and the extra time to study the issue will make for stronger reform proposals by the time the measure makes the ballot in 2018, he said. 

“It’s a two-year process, but at least this way, the community will be involved. The Police Review Commission will be involved. City Council can be involved. BPA, the Police Association can be involved, BPD can be involved, and we can actually have a process that starts working.” 

From Bulmaro Vicente’s perspective, change can’t come too soon. 

“[I was] kind of very disappointed in the police department and in the PRC itself, because even as a commissioner where I experienced this behavior and I had this kind of experience, the PRC wasn’t really willing to do anything about it. And also the police department itself was just kind of ‘well, you know, you just had a bad experience,’” he said. “But, you know, one bad experience for one person can lead to their own deaths or being brutalized by the police.” 

Andrew Beale is a graduate student at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He's reported for national and international outlets including the AP, Vice and al-Jazeera from the US, Mexico, Turkey and Palestine.